BY GREG OLWELL | FROM THE FALL 2019 ISSUE OF UKULELE MAGAZINE
Ohana Music founder Louis Wu never seems afraid of trying different things. In addition to selling many garden-variety ukuleles at player-friendly prices, hes been willing to stoke players imaginations with designs that offer slightly oddball variations of basic ukulele formats at the same affordable pricing philosophy. This is great for curious players (I count myself among them), who never tire of playing standard ukuleles, but also revel in variety and new opportunities to love the sounds, looks, and feels of the ukulele and what it’s capable of.
While the company continues to introduce conventional instruments, it was a few of the Ohanas other new instruments that really caught my eye, and after playing them over a few weeks, my ears really appreciated what these ukes offer players. While I love and celebrate novelty and zany ukuleles, as many of us do, I found two of these instruments, the concert 6-string and the tenor/baritone, to be novel in the sense of unusual, not odd for the sake of being odd. Each caused sparks to start flying in my mind when I thought about how I could use them in a group setting or for my own enjoyment. The other, the Marcy Marxer signature baritone, is a very solid take on a standard baritone, but with a cutaway.
A “BARI” NICE TENOR
Ohana describes the BKT-70G as an instrument with baritone voice and tenor tuning. Thats accurate, but after a few weeks of playing this ukulele, Id like to twist that description around a bit. With an unusually full-bodied voice matched to the tenors wonderful tuning and fretting-hand-friendly scale, I began to feel like the BKT-70G does a lot to unlock the possibilities of what a tenor ukulele could be.
What this Ohana is showing me is that the tenor can be an instrument with a fuller tone, plump with ripe fundamentals of your plucked notes and the darling overtones that that tickle our ears. Its these fundamentals that often get lost, especially on an instruments low-end, because most stringed instruments lack bodies large enough to resonate the full range of the lower-pitched notes. Stepping away from the physics of string vibrations, what this meant to me was that the notes flying from the BKT-70G had a roundness that I found irresistible, especially for fingerpicking classical pieces, like Lágrima (Winter 2016), or playing through some of the exercises in Daniel Wards books. Its full tone seemed to enrich the composers work, not just for the player, but also for the audience. As a strummer in a group setting, this Ohana was good at fitting in with other instruments, rather than jumping to the front with a blazing tone.
The solid spruce top has a tight grain, which helped deliver quick-speaking sounds and looked great with the simple binding. The necks large-ish D-shaped profile was very comfortable to my hands and made fretting easy for long sessions, and the open headstock just looks right on this uke. I very rarely use a strap and I found the baritone-sized body was also easy to hold sitting or standing. Even smaller players felt the same, as evidenced by my 11-year- old, who passed by a dozen other ukes to favor this one, saying that it was really easy to play.
This tenor-neck-on-a-baritone-body is a format I wish to see more of in the future. As it is, the BKT-70G is a great solution for players looking for a warm sound in a comfortable size. Id be really interested to see what can be done with solid woods for the back and sides, like rosewood or mahogany, which would make a slightly lighter and more resonant ukulele. But thats just a wish for the future; for now, the BKT-70G is a welcome addition to the party.
BKT-70G Solid Spruce And Mahogany Tenor Scale Baritone Ukulele
BODY 10-1/2″-wide baritone-sized body with solid spruce top, laminated mahogany back and sides, cream binding, gloss finish
NECK 17″ tenor-scale mahogany neck with 19-fret hardwood fretboard, hibiscus flower inlay, open slotted headstock, 1-7/16″-wide nut, gloss finish
OTHER Bone nut and saddle; Grover open-geared tuners; Aquila strings
SIGNED BY MARCY
Some signature ukes stand out for their unique shapes or fanciful features, while others make a mark by personalizing an already good thing to the tastes of a marquee musician. The new BK-35CG Marcy Marxer Signature baritone is a prime case of the latter, taking the BK-35, the companys all-solid mahogany baritone, and adding a cutaway on the BK-35CG seen here, and the BK-35CGE with a pickup and onboard electronics.
Grammy-winner Marcy Marxer is a regular contributor to this magazine, a valued teacher, and a top-notch musician on ukulele and guitar. Back in the day, she sought out and studied with Roy Smeck, a fiery vaudeville goofball whose hyperkinetic and hyper-inventive playing inspired many. Marxers playing is considerably less histrionic than Smecks, but she is no less talented as a player. And for her, the cutaway is an important addition to the baritone, which she says, blends so well with other ukuleles. If you have a ukulele group or jam sessionif you have a baritone uke it adds a nice lower warmth to the session.
Indeed, the Marxer baritone is a warm instrument that invites both solo playing and added depth to a group strum session. Ive played a few baritones that are louder than my tester, but the Marcy bari delivered the warm, deep tone that any of us could hope for in a baritone. Its why they exist, and this ukulele delivers. While earthy depth is a part of playing a baritone, few other baritones Ive played have been able to deliver the low-end clarity and definition that this Ohana did during our time together. The sound of some baritones can get a little mushy on the lower strings, but this ukes clearly defined low end really helps to pull together not only the sound of this ukulele, but also the group youre playing with. Everyone wants a solid foundation, and the Marxer has it for strummers and fingerpickers alike.
The bodys warm (theres that word again) mahogany stain and simple purfling and binding wont dazzle you with glitzy appointments the way some others might. This uke has a different goalto sound good and to look elegant while doing it. The neck width is nicely spaced for fingerpicking and its shape is a modest C profile, neither too skinny nor too chunky.
The Marcy Marxer is an instrument for those baritone players ready to step up to an all-solid uke with professional-grade tone and playability. Its graceful looks and depth of sound make it an appealing choice for players looking for a fine-yet-affordable baritone.
BK-35CG Marcy Marxer Baritone
BODY Solid mahogany baritone with cutaway, white/black purfling and wood binding, gloss finish
NECK 19-1/2″ scale baritone neck, mahogany with 20-fret hardwood fingerboard, 1-1/2″-wide at the nut; mahogany headplate with white purfling, gloss finish
OTHER Bone nut and saddle; chrome Grover open-geared tuners; Aquila strings; Available with a pickup, BK-35CGE ($389, MAP)
PRICE $319 (MAP)
Almost as long as there has been an instrument known as the ukulele, there have been versions of it with added strings. Usually, some or all the strings are doubled with strings tuned in unison, or occasionally paired with strings tuned an octave higher or lower than its partner in pitch. These pairs, or courses, were first used to increase the instruments volume as Hawaiian music ensembles became more popular 100 years ago. Twice as many strings not only made a louder uke, they also changed its fundamental tone, adding harmonic richness. It can also be a little too much (sound, clutter, and tuning). The 6-string is a hybrid of this idea and uses two pairs of strings matched with two single strings. Most 6-strings use octave pairs on the 1st and 3rd strings and have been especially popular with singers who are drawn to the richness of tone not available with a 4-string, but with a less cluttered sound than an 8-string.
With its new concert-size CK-70-A6, Ohana remixes this layout so that the two lowest strings are doubled with octave strings and the two top strings remain single courses. This Alternate 6 (the A6 part of the name) is tuned gG cC E A, and like other 6-strings, its made for strumming rich-sounding chords. By moving the octave pairs to the bottom, Ohana increases the instruments range, pumping out a bigger and deeper sound than you might expect from a concert uke. But I also found that the single strings on the top let me play clear-sounding melodies and ornamental notes, with the added richness of the octave strings chiming below.
To accommodate the extra strings, the A6s neck is a little wider than a normal concert ukulele and may take a little adjustment for some, but the sound is rewarding. The neck also has a nice, full profile, which I found comfortable for nesting in my palm and resting my thumb on the side of the neck. The action and setup were faultless. Combined with the long, guitar-like headstock with six tuners, the A6 was somewhat neck-heavynot really a problem for me, but some might prefer a strap. Picked and strummed notes decayed a little more quickly than Im used to, but the lush sounds of the many strings made it a rather pleasant experience.
Many players will find the CK-70-A6 to be a niche entry into the ukulele familyand it isbut for players looking to add something special or for a fresh voice, the A6 is worth seeking out for some quality picking time.
CK-70-A6 6-string Concert Ukulele
BODY Concert-sized body with solid spruce top and solid mahogany back and sides; white/black purfling and wood binding; satin finish
NECK Concert-scale mahogany neck, 4+2 headstock with mahogany headplate
OTHER Bone nut and saddle, Aquila strings; chrome open-geared tuners with white buttons
PRICE $289 (MAP)
MADE IN China